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Myths in the Museum: The Iron-Eater and the Ostrich Egg

Marianne JDatiles4 July 2019

This is the fourth segment in the Myths in the Museum series; you can go back and read about the horseshoe crab, the dugong and mermaid, and the narwhal and unicorn.

The now-extinct Arabian ostrich, depicted in The Book of Animals, 1335. [Source: The Book of Animals of al-Jahiz, Syria]

The UCL Grant Museum of Zoology is currently undergoing a significant restructuring of its displays. The Grant Museum is the last of London’s university natural history museums and has amassed a fascinating collection — but only a fraction is on display. From a set of warthog and domesticated pig skulls now placed over the entranceway as part of the expanded comparative anatomy section, to a lost set of dodo bones found in a drawer in 2011, to the world’s rarest skeleton, the extinct quagga (think zebra with fewer stripes), the museum’s collection is vast. In the newly reorganised avian section, some exceptionally large bird eggs are neatly lined up like a mini hall of fame. And the largest (non-extinct) egg of all, of course, belongs to that famous 9-foot-tall marvel with legs strong enough to kill a lion in one blow, the OG kickstarter, the Ostrich.

At the Grant Museum of Zoology, you can compare the pale-coloured ostrich egg with other large birds’ eggs. The photo on the left shows the individual ostrich egg; the photo on the right shows the museum’s display, with the now-extinct elephant egg dwarfing the rest, and the ostrich egg next to it. [Left: UCL Grant Museum, Y134; Right: image by Jen Datiles]

As the largest living bird species in the world, the ostrich unsurprisingly lays massive eggs that have been valued by humans for millennia. But their value goes beyond serving as a royal dish for ancient pharaohs; across cultures, the ostrich egg has long possessed symbolic significance and associations with prosperity, truth, life, and rebirth. Evidence as early as the 4th millennium BCE reveals eggs were hollowed and intricately carved, used as perfume containers and drinking cups, and buried as part of ancient Egyptian funerary rituals. Eggshells were found in sites of the early cultures of Mesopotamia and Crete, and the use of eggshells as drinking vessels was continued by desert peoples until at least the late 20thcentury. Ostrich eggs were also, of course, highly valued for their nutritional intake, with a whopping 120g or so of protein per egg.

Left: A mosaic floor in the Byzantine Church of Petra, Jordan [Photo: Bernard Gagnon]; Right: A 15th-century ostrich egg with Arabic writing, describing the soul’s journey from death to life [Copyright University of Leeds. Source: Nature, 2002]

Ostrich eggs remained both spiritually and practically significant in the Greek and Roman worlds, where they were offered to deities and hung in temples as decorations or used as lamps. This association of ostrich eggs with sacred spaces carried over into Muslim and Christian practices. The ostrich, according to popular belief in the 2ndcentury BCE, the ostrich had the ability to make its eggs hatch by staring at them intensely rather than brooding, a trait that added to their significance as early Christian symbols of not only new life and rebirth, but also of single-mindedness, concentration, and determination. Pliny the Elder wrote on the ostrich’s mythical ability to eat iron and glass, which earned the bird a reputation as an iron-eater, and symbolized strength through resistance and hardship. In medieval and early modern Europe, the ostrich egg also came to symbolize the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary.

Left: Ostrich eggs add both symbolism and splendor to the interior of the Lazarus Church in Cyprus. [Photo: Hannes Grobe/BHV]; Right: Piero della Francesca’s Brera Madona c. 1472, an altarpiece known for its pendant egg detail. [Source: Wiki Commons]

In the secular luxury trade of the 16-17th centuries, ostrich eggs became a subject of particular fascination for metalsmiths. Last week I oohed and ahhed my way through the famously fantastic Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Germany. Amongst all the royal treasures of gems, ivory, gold, and crystal, a wall of the Grünes Gewölb (Historic Green Vault) was devoted to some seriously decorated ostrich eggs. These specimens had been fashioned with gilt-silver into figurines, goblets, and drinking vessels that once adorned the feast tables and halls of Saxon princes. Talk about egg-cellent conversation pieces!

Left: Three ostriches, fashioned from eggs mounted in gilt-silver. Elias Geyer, c. 1595, in the Grünes Gewölbe, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden [Source: SKDresden Online Collection]; Right: An ostrich egg standing cup, c. 1570, from the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna. Note the horseshoe in the ostrich’s beak — a reference to its mythical ability to eat iron [Source: Wiki Commons].

Ostrich eggs may also have use in modern medical research. Like all birds, ostriches pass on bacteria- and virus-fighting antibodies to their offspring through their yolk. Considering one ostrich egg contains as much yolk as about 24 chicken eggs, and one ostrich female can lay 50-100 eggs per year, a team of Japanese researchers have identified ostrich eggs as a promising source for developing drugs. Last October, they announced the commercial development of an ostrich antibody for dengue fever. The research is open to speculation, and still years away from clinical trials and regulatory approval, but our fascination large eggs continues!

Further reading:

Green, N. (2006) Ostrich Eggs and Peacock Feathers: Sacred Objects as Cultural Exchange between Christianity and Islam, Al-Masāq,18:1, 27-78, DOI: 10.1080/09503110500222328

“When gibbons sing, I know it will rain”

CarolynThompson13 May 2019

I started writing this blog post whilst sat in a half-deserted village high up in the Gaoligong mountains in China. Occupied by only 10 remaining elders who refused to leave their traditional lives behind, I had the privilege of staying here and immersing myself into daily life.

Gaoligong mountain village, Yunnan Province, China. © Carolyn Thompson

I am seated by myself as the morning sun blinds me as it peeps out from over the moss-covered tiled roofs. Two chickens are currently sneaking past me into the kitchen to morbidly watch their duck cousin be prepared for breakfast. They scream as my host shoos them away flapping her arms wildly.

The houses date back 50+ years and are made from old wood and bamboo harvested from the forest in the days before the nearby reserve was established. Mules are found on the ground floor of these dwellings with humans roosting above. As a result, night-time can be a very noisy affair!

I also experienced a huge storm at 3 am. I’ve slept through many tropical storms when I lived and worked in Indonesian Borneo, but this was something else. The walls rattled as the rain beat against it and droplets started to seep through and trickle down. I thought the storm would snatch the flimsy roof right off, but I am glad to report that all houses — and mules — were still standing when I woke up.

Typical village dwelling. © Carolyn Thompson

My PhD is all about understanding local nature and wildlife values, comparing gibbon (small ape) knowledge, and investigating patterns of natural resource use. I have spent the past few months collecting social data in the form of structured interviews and small group discussions with local communities in both Hainan and Yunnan provinces. To get the most candid answers, it is important to immerse yourself into local life.

I have drunk countless cups of green tea and bottles of “bai jiu” (lethal Chinese wine) as a result, been dressed up as a local Hei Lisu person, braved eating the 100-year old egg, and scoffed so many sunflower seeds that I am ready to sprout!

Adult female Skywalker Hoolock gibbon (Hoolock tianxing). © Fan Peng-Fei.

Before embarking on my PhD journey, I was given an antique book by Robert Van Gulik, a Dutchman fascinated by gibbons and their significance in Chinese culture. Published in 1967, “The Gibbon in China” is a magical collection of poems, stories and paintings dating back to 200 BC. Rich in its content, I was overwhelmed with the stories about “lonely”, “sad-looking” yet “magical” apes who sing haunting and melancholy songs in the Chinese mountains.

Taoists (those that believe in ancient nature-worship regarding the flow of “ch’i” energy in all living things) talked about gibbons being superior to humans. Gibbons were often referred to as “gentlemen” as discussed in my previous blog. Everyone loves good manners — bring a gibbon to meet the parents and they won’t be disappointed due to their impeccable “table manners” (unlike their mischievous macaque monkey cousins), according to an 8th-Century poet, Liu Tsung-Yuan. Their intelligence, supposedly similar to humans, is also regularly mentioned, especially when needing to drink water from a nearby river. Forming a chain by holding hands, gibbons would lower themselves down to the river. One should therefore never “…place a gibbon (Yuan-yu) in a barred cage [as] how could he then show his clever skills?” (4th Century statesman, Ch’u-tz’u).

Forming a “Gibbon Chain”. Nineteenth Century. Sourced from Van Gulik’s 1967 essay on “Gibbons in China”.

Having read this book from cover to cover, I was pumped to record rich gibbon stories during my field season. I was therefore incredibly shocked and disappointed to learn that many traditional stories have not been passed down through the generations.

China is made up of 56 different ethnic groups, all of which used to be rich in culture and history with traditional dress and sigils (both of which are now rarely seen). I interviewed participants from six of these ethnic groups and asked them questions regarding  the importance of gibbons and forests in their local culture. Participants either didn’t understand the question or they would say there is no connection.

I was relieved to hear that a few elders still have a tale or two to tell, especially when it comes to gibbons being able to predict the weather:

“When gibbons sing, I know it will rain tomorrow.” (Anonymous).

An elder in Hainan province told me about how gibbons came to be which involved a naughty, lazy boy who was scolded with an iron on his butt. He then sprouted hair and turned into a gibbon.

I also had a surprisingly funny interview with a 70-something year old man who used to work in Burma harvesting wood to sell back to the Chinese. He spoke about his love of gibbons…to eat! We spent most of our interview crying with laughter as his opinion was so far from my own. He kept insisting that gibbons were incredibly ugly and thought I was crazy because I felt they had aesthetic value.

An on-looker listening in to an interview whilst looking at gibbon photographs. © Yu Yue Jiang.

“Look at their ugly faces!” He would yell. “Ah, they taste so good! Such a shame the government won’t let me hunt them anymore.”

It is important when I conduct these interviews that I remain impartial. At the end of the day, my PhD is all about finding sustainable solutions for both humans and gibbons alike.

My favourite moment was with an 87-year old woman who heard that a “laowai” (foreigner) was staying in the village. Having never left her village or seen a Caucasian woman before, we had a very special, informal moment bonding over gibbons and discussing what life was like during her youth — and what life was like now.

https://www.instagram.com/p/Bu6JKNjAWA8/

Although I am still at the start of my PhD journey, I have teamed up with a local non-governmental organisation called Cloud Mountain, who carry out conservation education activities. We hope to work together to reintroduce some of these traditional gibbon stories back into these villages. With only 28 Hainan gibbons, 150 Skywalker Hoolock gibbons and 110 Cao Vit gibbons remaining (my three study species), hopefully we can remind people of their magical, shared history and raise the profile of these forgotten apes before it is too late.

If you would like to follow my PhD journey, you can do so here: Personal blog, Twitter, Instagram. Or come and meet me in the UCL Grant or Petrie museums next month!

Question of the Week: How do dogs recognise other dogs?

Cerys RJones30 April 2019

From Great Danes and Dogue de Bordeauxs to miniature Dachshunds and Chihuahuas, man’s best friend comes in a variety of shapes and sizes, so how can they recognise fellow dogs even when they all look so different?

Dogs come in a variety of different shapes and sizes, featuring Jess the black Labrador, Jewell the miniature Dachshund, Percy the Bichon Frise, Luna the Dogue de Bordeaux, Scratch the Jack Russell Terrier, and Spud the mixed-breed. (Engager’s own photos)

The Kennel Club recognises 211 different breeds of dogs but with different coats and mixed-breeds, there are by no means 211 dog-shaped moulds. Despite this, your dog can decipher between a Bichon Frise and a lamb instantly. This is in part due to their impressive sense of smell which they use to smell the hormones secreted by other dogs. Not only do they have a large nose cavity, which contains a folded surface covered by the sensing organ that is up to 23 times larger than in humans, they also have a vomeronasal organ in the roof of their mouth for detecting smells [1]. This means dogs can smell up to 10,000 times better than humans [1].

Seven domestic dog skulls on display in the Grant Museum (Accession number: Z2909)

Dogs’ ability to recognise different chemicals through their sense of smell has been used by humans to sniff out drugs, explosives and even illnesses such as cancer and diabetes. But is this the only sense dogs rely on to recognise other canines? A study from 2013 tested nine dogs’ ability to correctly identify other dogs from pictures [2]. The dogs were shown two images: one of a dog (from a set of 3000 pictures of different breeds, including mixed-breeds) and one of a non-dog animal, which included cats, cows, rabbits, birds, reptiles and even humans. On command, the dog participant had to correctly distinguish between the images and place their paw on the picture of the dog. All nine dogs successfully chose the images of the dogs over the images of non-dogs the required 10 times out of 12. The study concluded that dogs could “form a visual category of “dog pattern”” ([2] page 647); however, it did not allow the researchers “to determine which dog morphotypes or which species were easier to discriminate” ([2] page 648). As the dogs were successful at distinguishing between dogs and other animals from photographs alone, it is clear that they don’t solely rely on a sense of smell.

Hair curlers with a hunting dog on from the Petrie Museum (Accession number: UC8529)

Although varying highly in appearance, from the colour of their coat to the length of their snout, dogs use both their senses of smell and sight to identify others. Exactly which visual cues are required is still unknown. One thing we know for certain is, regardless of how they look, they’re all good dogs!

 

Bibliography

[1] Miklosi, A., (2018) “The Dog: A Natural History” Ivy Press, Brighton

[2] Autier-Derian, D., Deputte, B.L., Chalvet-Monfray, K., Coulon, M., and Mounier, L., (2013) “Visual discrimination of species in dogs (Canis familiaris)” Anim Cong, 16, pp 637-651.

The Plagues of Egypt

Hannah BPage23 October 2018

For my blog post this week I am starting a new series based loosely on the Plagues of Egypt. The idea came to me while I was working in the Grant Museum and was thinking about possible connections between the Grant and the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology. For some reason as I was stood next to the insect cabinet, the plague of locusts was the first thing that came to mind.. and conveniently, I have already written a blog post about the 2nd plague of frogs. Before I launch in I must note briefly that I don’t particularly wish to talk about religion or religious texts. Instead I will use the 10 plagues to discuss some (hopefully) interesting zoological and sociocultural phenomena that link the two museums.

So, what are the 10 Plagues of Egypt?

  1. Water turning into blood
  2. Frogs
  3. Lice
  4. Wild animals
  5. Diseased livestock
  6. Boils
  7. Thunderstorms of hail and fire
  8. Locusts
  9. Darkness for three days
  10. Death of the firstborn

The first plague of water turning into blood is an interesting one to start with, but the topic of the two liquids is very pertinent to both collections. Water has an incredibly important role in the ideological and cultural landscape of ancient Egypt. The waters of the Nile were the lifeblood of ancient Egyptian society. It provided vital irrigation for farming, transport through the kingdom, and was linked closely with ideology and religion in Egypt. The Greek Herodotus is recorded as calling Egypt the “gift of the Nile”, implying that Egypt itself was born from the river—this further develops an idea I have discussed in a previous blog post: that the Nile is deeply connected with fertility. With this in mind it is not difficult to see how devastating the idea of water turning into blood would be for Egyptian society.

One papyrus from the twelfth dynasty (c.1991-1803 BCE) interestingly states that the “river is blood“, which has caused some debate over the occurrence of the plagues in Egyptian history. However, the most probable explanation is that during the harsh flooding of the Nile the disturbed red river silt would create this phenomena.

Blood as well as water was also symbolically significant to the Ancient Egyptians. Wine was given as “blood of the Gods” during certain religious offerings, something akin to the Christian symbolism of using wine as the blood of Christ, and the deity Shesmu is also linked with blood, being the lord of wine and the “great slaughterer of the gods”.

It is also not difficult to connect the Grant Museum with water and blood as they are both vital components to many living creatures on earth. For this post I wish to focus in on one of my favourite water dwellers in the museum and one that has a deep connection with ancient Egypt. This mammal can certainly displace a lot of water and coincidently produces a fluid over its skin that is often called blood sweat. The hippopotamus, known as a “river horse” by the ancient Greeks secretes a substance called hipposudoric acid. The liquid is red, which gives it its colloquial name, but it is neither sweat nor blood. In fact the secretion is an example of an evolutionary masterpiece—a natural sunscreen! This fluid is very much needed due to their skin being exposed in blistering high UV environments (and being a redhead who works in sub-Saharan Africa- I can fully appreciate this)! As well as the blood sweat creating UV protection it is also a very good antiseptic, which is useful as hippos can be extremely aggressive animals.

Fig 2. Hippo skull in the Grant Museum of Zoology (Catalogue no. Z32)

Sadly, the hippo is no longer found in Egypt but in dynastic times it was a hazard to boat travellers along the Nile and was present in ideological and cultural symbolism.  The deity Taweret was often depicted in the form of a pregnant hippo as she represented fertility (like frogs!). Hippo figurines are also found on ancient Egyptian sites (Fig 3) and hippo tusk ivory was used to make pendants, amulets and sculptural pieces.

Fig 3. Blue glazed faience hippopotamus (Petrie Museum Catalogue No. UC45074)

As you can see, water and blood were and still are incredibly important cultural symbols, most probably due to their inescapable connection to the natural world and to life and death. It really is no wonder that that these themes come up time and time again all over the world.

I hope you have enjoyed my first foray into the Plagues of Egypt as much as I have… I’m quite excited about what direction they might take my research in next!

The Imperial Gentleman of China

CarolynThompson3 July 2018

I am a primatologist; that is, a scientist who studies the behaviour, abundance and conservation status of monkeys, lemurs and apes. My specialty area and the focus of my PhD research here at University College London, is the plight of the gibbons, the smallest of the apes.

The Skywalker Hoolock gibbon (Hoolock tianxing). Photograph taken on Carolyn Thompson’s recent field trip to China. (Photo credit: Carolyn Thompson)

Gibbons are often forgotten in the shadow of their great cousins — the orangutans, chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas — receiving less funding, as well as research and media attention. This is very unfortunate seeing as 19 of the 20 species are on the brink of extinction. The Hainan gibbon, for example, is the world’s rarest primate with a mere 26 individuals making up their entire global population.

I am always thrilled therefore to see media articles raising some much needed gibbon awareness, even if the news story doesn’t always paint us humans in the best light.

In 2004, one of my supervisors from the Zoological Society of London, stumbled across a gibbon skull inside a tomb in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, China. The skull is believed to be ca. 2,200-2,300 years old and the potential property of Lady Xia, the grandmother of China’s first emperor, Qin Shihuang, who is famous for his striking terracotta army. Inside this ancient tomb was a whole menagerie of other animal skeletons including a crane, bear and a leopard — yet another example of human-animal relationships that have dated back millennia.

The skull of Junzi imperialis. (Photo credit: Samuel Turvey).

Although this exciting discovery could tell us a lot about our evolutionary shared ancestry with gibbon species, there are still many unanswered questions. We are unsure if the skull, now said to belong to Junzi imperalis (meaning the ‘imperial man of virtue’ due to the strong historical relationship between humans and gibbons in Chinese culture) is in fact a new species and where it came from. There are strong indicators, however, suggesting that this potentially new species of gibbon could be the first ape to have vanished off the face of the earth due to human pressures. Now extinct, we need to look at our current impact on the planet to ensure we don’t do the same with our other cousins.

Part of my PhD research examines the relationship between humans and animals, especially amongst local communities found in gibbon habitat regions. This intrigue, along with my love of mingling with the public, led me to my new role as a Student Engager in the UCL museums. For example, the Ancient Egyptians also had a strong connection with animals which I hope to explore over the coming months in the UCL Petrie Museum, and the Grant Museum of Zoology also has a couple of gibbon skeletons hanging around. Come and see for yourself!

In the meantime, keep your eyes peeled for my upcoming blogs on Twitter: @gibbonresearch and @ResearchEngager

Of Gastropods and Glass: The Grant Museum’s Blaschka Models of Invertebrates

Hannah LWills24 April 2018

This week it’s time for another of my favourite objects from the UCL museums, today from the collections of the Grant Museum of Zoology. Displayed in a case near the front of the museum is a collection of extraordinary objects. At first glance, these objects appear somewhat otherworldly; their lightly transparent and almost twinkling surfaces captured my attention from my very first visit. They are, of course, the Grant Museum’s collection of glass models of invertebrates, a collection that includes jellyfish, sea anemones, gastropods, and sea cucumbers, produced at the end of the nineteenth century by the Blaschkas, a renowned family of Czech jewellers.

Limax arborum (tree slug). Blaschka glass model of a white slug, (P202). Image credit: Grant Museum.

Actinia equina (beadlet anemone). Blaschka model of a beadlet anemone. Red/orange body with white beadlets. The tentacles are transparent. On a black wooden base, under a glass dome, (C373). Image credit: Grant Museum.

 

The Blaschka family

The models in the museum’s collection were produced by Leopold and his son Rudolph Blaschka in the late 1800s, and may have been ordered by E. Ray Lankester during his time at UCL as professor of zoology.[i] Leopold Blaschka was born in 1822 in Northern Bohemia (today part of Czechia), in Aicha, a village known for its glasswork and decorative crafts.[ii] The Blaschka family specialised in producing jewellery using a range of materials, including glass, metal, and semi-precious stones. During his career, Leopold developed an interest in natural history, and began producing and selling models of invertebrates in the mid-1860s. The models were created using glass, wire, glue and paint, and occasionally incorporated parts of once-living creatures, including snail shells (see below).[iii] Today, Blaschka invertebrate models can be found in museums all over the world. The Harvard Museum of Natural History also holds a collection of glass flowers created by the Blaschkas, commissioned by the university in 1890.[iv]

Arianta arbustorum (copse snail). Blaschka glass model, (P196). Image credit: Grant Museum.

 

Why make specimens out of glass?

Passing the collection of models for the first time, a visitor to the Grant Museum could be forgiven for mistaking these models for specimens that were once alive. In light of the museum’s other displays, which feature real animals preserved using a variety of methods, one might wonder why artificial specimens, such as the Blaschka models, should be on display in a museum of natural history. While some creatures, such as mammals, birds, and fish, are easily preserved using methods of taxidermy, flowers and the softer bodies of invertebrates pose specific challenges in terms of their preservation. Putting these specimens into alcohol causes them to lose their shape and colour.[v] By creating models out of glass and other materials, it is possible to depict the vibrant colours and forms of the original specimens, allowing these creatures to be preserved and studied.

Art, Science, and ‘Jokes of Nature’

Former student engager Niall Sreenan has mused on the nature of the Blaschka models as artificial creations that occupy an ambiguous realm between nature and art.[vi] As a historian of science, I am fascinated by this interplay, particularly as it relates to the practice of natural history and the display of specimens. The relationship between art, nature, and science held great significance to the practice of natural history in sixteenth and seventeenth-century Europe. As the historian Paula Findlen has noted, collectors of natural specimens in the Early Modern period were fascinated by the idea that Nature, as a creative force who produced all the objects and creatures in the world, sported or played in her work by producing ‘jokes of nature’.[vii] Such ‘jokes of nature’ incorporated instances where natural objects appeared to ‘mimic’ human artifice, as seen in unusual fossils, geometric crystals, or in stones which appeared to have pictures implanted within them.[viii] ‘Jokes of nature’ were connected to science through the idea that man might match nature using art. Artificial creations and human imitations of natural forms were thought to mimic these jokes in a way that was central to natural philosophers’ understanding of the world.[ix]

Though produced over a century later, the Blaschka glass models call to mind this ambiguous division between human artifice and natural object. As models of difficult-to-preserve specimens, they allow visitors to understand what these creatures look like. On the other hand, they draw attention to human ingenuity and skill in the way they artfully capture the look of organic specimens.

Sea cucumber (female). Blaschka glass model in a cylindrical specimen jar, (S73). Image credit: Grant Museum.

 

The end of a craft

In 1895, Leopold Blaschka died. When his son retired in 1938 with no apprentices left at the firm, the Blaschka family business closed.[x] The skills used to produce the models died with the Blaschka family, and their work has not been repeated since.[xi] The models in the Grant Museum stand as a remarkable testament to unique craftsmanship and skills now lost.

Though models are no longer produced using the techniques once used by the Blaschka family, the relationship between art and natural history continues to fascinate contemporary artists. Grant Museum Manager Jack Ashby has recently written about the ways in which artists explore and reference the methods of natural history, and the treatment of both living and preserved animal specimens on display.[xii] Exploring the intersection of natural history and art, whether in the creation of model specimens or in the interrogation of the practices of natural history, can prompt us to question the ways in which natural and man-made objects are encountered in museums, and the way we understand an object’s (and our own) relationship with the natural world.

 

 

References

[i] ‘Blaschka Glass Model Invertebrates’, UCL Grant Museum, https://www.ucl.ac.uk/culture/grant-museum-zoology/blaschka-glass-models-invertebrates [Accessed 23 April 2018].

[ii] ‘Blaschka Models’, National Museums Scotland, https://www.nms.ac.uk/explore-our-collections/stories/natural-world/blaschka-models/ [Accessed 23 April 2018].

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] ‘Blaschka Models’, National Museums Scotland, https://www.nms.ac.uk/explore-our-collections/stories/natural-world/blaschka-models/ [Accessed 23 April 2018].

[vi] Niall Sreenan, ‘”Strange Creatures” – Reflections – Part One’, 25 June 2015, https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/researchers-in-museums/2015/06/25/strange-creatures-reflections-part-one/ [Accessed 23 April 2018].

[vii] Paula Findlen, “Jokes of Nature and Jokes of Knowledge: The Playfulness of Scientific Discourse in Early Modern Europe,” Renaissance Quarterly 43, no. 2 (1990): 292-96.

[viii] Ibid., 297-98.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] ‘Blaschka Models’, National Museums Scotland, https://www.nms.ac.uk/explore-our-collections/stories/natural-world/blaschka-models/ [Accessed 23 April 2018].

[xi] ‘Blaschka Glass Model Invertebrates’, UCL Grant Museum, https://www.ucl.ac.uk/culture/grant-museum-zoology/blaschka-glass-models-invertebrates [Accessed 23 April 2018].

[xii] Jack Ashby, ‘When Art Recreates the Workings of Natural History it can Stimulate Curiosity and Emotion’, 19 April 2018, https://natsca.blog/2018/04/19/when-art-recreates-the-workings-of-natural-history-it-can-stimulate-curiosity-and-emotion/ [Accessed 23 April 2018].

Season’s (Philosophical) Feastings

Hannah LWills13 December 2017

Christmas is a time for overindulgence, so let’s have some tales of eighteenth-century feasting, with a twist from the history of science.

In my research, I examine the diary of Charles Blagden (1748-1820), physician, natural philosopher, and secretary to London’s Royal Society. One of the things I’ve been most struck by in my work on Blagden’s diary is the ever-presence of food and feasting within the social and scientific worlds of the late eighteenth century. Blagden’s diary reveals a near-daily itinerary of dining engagements where politicians, fellows of the Royal Society, and members of London’s well-to-do gathered to discuss news, politics, and the latest developments in natural knowledge over a range of lavish and often exotic meals. 

Scientific gatherings and feasts

A typical day for Blagden in the year 1795 began with a trip to the London home of Sir Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society, for breakfast. Though the diary gives little indication of the food on offer, it does reveal that at these gatherings participants discussed news, politics, and natural philosophy, all over breakfast. On some occasions, Blagden and Banks conducted experiments, as revealed in Blagden’s diary entry for 19 February 1795: ‘Breakfasted at Sir Joseph Banks’s. all civil: made some experiments on crystallisation of nitre’.[i] This experiment was one that investigated the properties of a key ingredient in the manufacture of saltpetre (potassium nitrate) used in the manufacture of explosives.

On Thursdays, before the weekly meetings of the Royal Society, Blagden attended the Royal Society Club, a dining club for fellows of the Society held at the Crown and Anchor Inn on the Strand. While meetings of the club were intended to be social, scientific matters were inevitably discussed while members feasted on a variety of foods.[ii] The Royal Society archives contain some of the menus from these meetings, which at a dinner held on 23 October 1783 included ‘A Turtle’, which had for several days before the dinner been allowed to roam at Banks’s London home, ‘Scate’ (the fish skate), ‘Harricot of Mutton’ (a mutton stew), ‘a Hare’, ‘another dish of Turtle’, ‘Potatoes’, ‘Cold Ribs of Lamb’, ‘Breast of Veal’, ‘Haddock’ and finally ‘more of the Turtle’.[iii]

Feasting as research

As well as being a convivial aid to the discussion of natural philosophical topics, eating was also a central part of investigating nature. At gatherings hosted by Banks, visitors indulged in the consumption of various plants and animals, many sourced from exotic locations. One entry in Blagden’s diary reveals a particular gathering during which guests enjoyed several nuts brought by the botanist Richard Molesworth, named in Blagden’s diary as ‘Buticosa’ and ‘Sawena’. Blagden described them as ‘both pleasant to eat; one a sort of buttery nut, the other larger & more like walnut’.[iv]

Such behaviour might seem eccentric and even dangerous to us depending on the kinds of exotic fare on offer. Banks was frequently targeted by contemporary satire with his ‘philosophical’ feasting caricatured in a sketch by the artist Thomas Rowlandson. In ‘The Fish Supper’ (below) we see Banks’s guests, possibly including Blagden, eagerly preparing to devour an alligator specimen, while Banks, on the right-hand side of the image, greedily gnaws on a snake.

Thomas Rowlandson, Sir Joseph Banks about to Eat an Alligator (‘The Fish Supper’), 1788, ink and watercolour on paper (Image credit: © Tate (2014), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 Unported)

 

Festive feasting, with a bang

Experiments combined with dining did on occasion produce dangerous results. For a final festive example, we turn to an anecdote of the earlier eighteenth century. On Christmas Day 1750, Blagden’s contemporary Benjamin Franklin conducted an ill-fated experiment in cooking a turkey. Though today perhaps best known as one of the founding fathers of America, Franklin was also a renowned natural philosopher, famed for his electrical experiments. In April 1749, Franklin wrote a letter detailing an experiment he intended to make where ‘A turkey is to be killed for our dinner by the electrical shock, and roasted by the electrical jack’.[v] Franklin repeated this experiment on Christmas Day the following year with disastrous results, describing it as:

an Experiment in Electricity that I desire never to repeat… I inadvertently took the whole [shock] thro’ my own Arms and Body… the flash was very great and the crack as loud as a Pistol; yet my Senses being instantly gone, I neither Saw the one nor heard the other’.[vi]

Franklin’s turkey cooking is definitely a dining experiment not to be tried at home!

 

 

References:

[i] Royal Society Library, Charles Blagden’s Diary Vol 3, entry dated 19 Feb 1795, f. 47r.

[ii] For more information on the dining clubs of the Royal Society, including its membership, see T. E. Allibone, The Royal Society and Its Dining Clubs (Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1976).

[iii] Ibid., 121.

[iv] Royal Society Library, Charles Blagden’s Diary Vol 3, entry dated 17 Oct 1795, f. 70v.

[v] Meredith Man, ‘Ben Franklin on Cooking Turkey… with Electricity’, blog post for the New York Public Library website, published on 24 Nov 2014.

[vi] Ronald Clark, Benjamin Franklin: A Biography (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1983), 76.

The wonderful world of primate poo (and why it really matters)

CatrynWilliams17 August 2017

As a biology PhD student, I’ll be the first to admit that there are some studies in science that, whilst interesting, can leave you questioning who comes up with these and why they (and we) should care so much.  If you, like me, are the kind of person who loves these kinds of things, the list of past Ig Nobel prize winners is a cornucopia of great examples.  Often, though, all it takes is delving a little deeper to find the importance in what seems like a pointless topic.  My PhD involves collecting primate poo samples to look at their gut bacteria, and so does occasionally elicit the classic and very valid question: “But what’s the point of it?” from people, so I thought for this week’s blog post I’d try and answer exactly that.

Primates are our closest relatives and, in fact, your closest relatives are also primates, as are you yourself.  We’ve known about the anatomical similarities between humans and other, non-human primates for hundreds of years.  The Grant Museum of Zoology plays host to what used to be a teaching collection for doctors studying at UCL, where the bones and structures of animals from non-human primates to fish would be studied to understand how our own bodies developed from the ancestors we shared with other organisms.  Then, in the 1980s, with the birth of molecular sequencing techniques, we gained the ability to study the DNA of animals.  From this we began to understand just how closely related to other primates we really are, leading us to the famous fact that we are 98% genetically identical to chimpanzees, our closest relative.

ChimpanzeeSkeleton

A juvenile chimpanzee skeleton from the Grant Museum of Zoology, accession number Z449

The next big step, in my (admittedly, probably biased) opinion, in our understanding of the human body and how it works has been our realisation that gut bacteria are hugely important to human health and disease.  We might tend to think of bacteria as harmful or infectious, but actually the bugs that live in your intestine are a normal part of a healthy human body.  They outnumber our own cells 10 to 1, making us 90% bacteria in terms of cell numbers alone (although our own cells are much larger, which is why by mass we’re still mostly human), break down parts of our food that we ourselves can’t digest and even provide us with many hormones (such as 90% of our serotonin, the “happiness” hormone).  In addition, gut bacteria has lately been linked to everything from keeping us lean or helping to make us obese, to maintaining normal bowel functions or exacerbating conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome.

So where do non-human primates come into this?  Well, as with the Grant Museum’s collection all those years ago, it’s nothing new to study our relatives in order to understand more about ourselves.  While understanding the gut bacteria of primates across the whole primate evolutionary tree lets us take a look at how gut bacteria have evolved alongside us to create a mutualistic relationship, primates in particular are a very interesting group of animals.  Within the Primate Order there is huge variation in the ways that these animals live their lives, and it is by considering these differences that we can begin to understand how the variations between different human lifestyles affect our gut bacteria and so our health.  For example, by comparing primates that eat mostly vegetation to species that eat fruit or meat or even gum like lorises, we can start to ask questions about how much our diet affects what bacteria can survive in the gut.  Looking at animals that are highly social, such as chimpanzees or baboons, vs. those that are mostly solitary creatures such as bushbabies can tell us how gut bacteria is spread and shared between individuals, communities and even between different species living in the same area (this is not as crazy as you think – humans have been found to share skin bacteria with their pet dogs).

Primate species, diet and social structure are all thought to be important in determining an animal's gut bacteria

Primate species, diet and social structure are all thought to be important in determining an animal’s gut bacteria. Licensed under Creative Commons CC0 1.0

But it’s not just ourselves that we can learn things about when we study non-human primates.  One large aspect of my PhD looks at how life in captivity affects the gut microbiomes of primates.  Whilst life in captivity is not ideal for any animal, raising them in zoos and centres can have benefits for endangered species.  Studying the gut bacteria has the potential to offer suggestions on how we might be able to enrich the diets of captive animals to ensure they maintain healthy gut bacteria whilst living in zoos.  Furthermore, by looking at what nutrients are necessary to keep a healthy set of bacteria, we might be able to start thinking about conservations issues such as which plants are highly important to conserve alongside these endangered animals.

So, I hope I’ve convinced you that gut bacteria are important, that my area of research has the potential to be of great help, and above all, that primate poo is a great thing to study.

A Physicist’s Guide to Zoology

CatrynWilliams21 February 2017

As any lover of Attenborough will, I’m sure, understand, the idea that someone is not naturally interested in nature and zoology is something that I, as a researcher of primates (specifically, their gut bacteria), had never really considered before. Aware as I am that the fascinating but visually underwhelming (I’m sorry!) sea squirt might take a bit of effort to enthuse people I sort of assumed a general underlying love of at least all the four-legged, big-eyed, furry, woolly things of the world.

This wholly unreasonable assumption of mine was proven wrong during last week’s shift at the Grant Museum by one simple question from a very enthusiastic and lovely retired physicist:

“What would a group of physicists find interesting in a Zoology museum?”

What follow here are just two examples of nature seen through a different lens, which I hope go some way towards enthusing those not naturally curious about zoology.

All that glitters isn’t gold, all that shimmers isn’t green

Most of the green birds you see are pretenders.  Rather than truly being green, they’re a beautiful example of something called structural colouring.

When you use paint to colour a surface, what you are applying are coloured molecules, called pigments.  These produce colour through absorption of different wavelengths of light; to produce green, for example, red and blue light are absorbed whilst green light is reflected into your eyes.

Honeycreeper

The Green Honeycreeper, not a green bird. Photo credit: CC Image courtesy of Lip Kee on Flickr

First observed by Robert Hooke and Sir Isaac Newton and explained by Thomas Young a century later, structural colouring, however, is the production of colour through the interference of white light by microscopic surfaces, rather than absorption of certain wavelengths.  This can work in conjunction with pigments — for example, a peacock feather is pigmented brown, but microscopically structured so that they reflect blue and green light, and also making them iridescent, showing different colours depending on the angle from which you view them.

Structural colouring in animals, particularly birds, can be a big evolutionary advantage.  Creating pigments can be very energy-costly, and often requires rare elements that are difficult to extract from food during digestion, such as metals like cadmium, cobalt or chromium for green pigments.  Structural colouring is an ingenious way to create these brilliant colours through feather shape alone, hugely useful when trying to attract a mate or hide from predators in the trees.

Turacos are the interesting exception to these structural colourists.  Found in forests and woodlands in sub-Saharan Africa, these birds actually produce their own unique red and green pigments, called turacin and turacoverdin respectively, using an unusually high amount of copper.  Just why they make this pigment is still a mystery.  Their habitat coincides with the world’s richest copperbelt, leading some to speculate that this pigment production might’ve evolved to detoxify the large amount of copper these birds ingest through their food.  Whatever the reason, this unique ability to use copper in this way makes turacos some of the only truly green birds.

A truly green Angolan Turaco. Photo credit: C. P. Ewing

A truly green Angolan Turaco. Photo credit: CC Image courtesy of C. P. Ewing on Flickr

There are many examples of structural colouring in the Grant Museum, from the peacock’s feather to the wings of iridescent butterflies and the gold sheen of some beetles.  I highly recommend seeing how many you can spot next time you’re there.

 

A (constructal) theory of everything

 

It might not be the unified theory that Stephen Hawking is searching for, but the Constructal Law is a physics theory that can be used to explain the shapes of all the bones, limbs and preserved animal specimens that you see around you in the Grant Museum.

In its simplest form, Constructal Law states that systems naturally evolve over time to minimise energy waste.  Substitute the word “animals” for “systems”, and you have its application to zoology.  This seems like an obvious benefit; wasting less energy allows animals to get the most out of the food they eat, allowing them to flee from predators faster, spend less time gathering food and more time chatting each other up, and produce better-fed offspring. Where this rule becomes most interesting though is when you consider animal locomotion.

Even though running, flying and swimming have all evolved as separate methods of locomotion, they’re all linked by this simple physics principle.  Despite involving very different body mechanics, it turns out that there is a universal relationship between animals’ mass and speed, as well as the frequency and force of limb or tail movement, whether those are legs, wings or fins.  The relationship between a winged animal’s mass and the frequency of their wing beats shows the same relationship as between mass and rate of swimming in fish, as well as mass and stride frequency in running animals, and has all evolved to move the animal at optimal speed, reducing energy wastage whilst maintaining quick movement.  No other factors, such as type of creature, limb length, wingspan or otherwise, seem to factor in to this, only body mass and limb or tail movement.

Grant Museum

Paddling and running on display at the Grant Museum. Photo credit: CC Image courtesy of Justin Pickard on Flickr

This principle helps determine how animals move around and is a brilliant example of how the great diversity of life still converges to fit fundamental physics principles.  Next time you’re in the Grant Museum, have a think about how all the animals around you have been shaped in part by this universal law.

The physicist I met got me to consider the animal specimens in the museum from a whole new angle, making me think about what different people would find interesting about zoology and, importantly, why, rather than just assuming everyone has an inbuilt love.  Just like the iridescent wings of certain animals, looking at a familiar collection from a different angle can offer a whole new view on zoology.  And seriously, give the sea squirt a chance.

A Novel Idea: Popular Culture Influences in Zoology

Arendse ILund18 August 2016

ArendseBy Arendse Lund

Hidden in one of the far cabinets in the Grant Museum, nestled amongst parasites and other unusual filter feeders, sits a much overlooked worm. This invertebrate marine creature is known as a Chaetopterus and is unusual because it has lived its whole adult life in a tube constructed from underwater sediment and attached to a rock. More colloquially though, the Chaetopterus is referred to as a parchment worm.

Parchment Worm

This worm (image on the right, Grant Museum, G52) has actually nothing in common with parchment, which usually is made of calf-, sheep-, or goatskin and used to create manuscripts. Nor does it have anything to do with those worms that destroy manuscripts to the detriment of scholarship everywhere. Actually, it takes its name from the papery, parchment-like burrows it lives in.

Similar to how visitors who are fans of Pokémon are thrilled to espy some of the animals the monsters are based on, book-loving visitors to the museum seem to take great delight in this worm’s name, granting it a celebrity status higher than it might otherwise have. A worm, by any other name, might not be as popular.

Literary lovers will also be happy that spiders and other arachnids have book lungs, respiratory organs unrelated to the lungs of humans. This diagram from John Henry Comstock’s aptly titled The Spider Book depicts a cross section of a spider’s book lung. These lungs are arranged with horizontal, leaf-like folds. Composed of stacks of alternating air pockets, these “pages” usually do not need to move to work. Similarly, horseshoe crabs have book gills, which are external appendages rather than internal organs.

Spider Book Lung

Figure 2: A spider’s book lung with the #3 marking the leaves of the book lung (Comstock, The Spider Book, pg. 146)

Luckily for fans of whimsy, there is a fair amount of freedom involved in describing or naming species. The International Code of Zoological Nomenclature instructs that: “Authors should exercise reasonable care and consideration in forming new names to ensure that they are chosen with their subsequent users in mind and that, as far as possible, they are appropriate, compact, euphonious, memorable, and do not cause offence.” This leniency with naming animals, in comparison to naming astronomical bodies, has allowed for newly discovered species to be named after expedition benefactors, popular celebrities, and even mythical creatures.

In the late 1990s, a species of turtle was dubbed Psephophorus terrypratchetti after Terry Pratchett, whose Discworld series takes place on that back of a giant turtle. A species of ancient lizard was given the moniker Clevosaurus sectumsemper as an allusion to the vicious spell Severus Snape invents in the Harry Potter series. Similarly, a 66 million year-old dinosaur was named Dracorex Hogwartsia, or the “Dragon King of Hogwarts,” and resembles the fictional Hungarian Horntail. Dragons seem to be a popular source of naming inspiration: Two recently discovered ants were even named after Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons from Game of Thrones: Pheidole drogon and Pheidole viserion.

Pheidole Viserion

Figure 3: Pheidole viserion, whose spiked appearance and blonde color caused it to be named after the dragon from Game of Thrones. (Photo: Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology).

While all these are fairly straight-forward allusions to fictional works, one paleontologist took it even further when she discovered a fossil tetrapod near a quarry in Scotland. She developed a name which only works in translation: Eucritta melanolimnetes, or “the true creature from the black lagoon.”

Sometimes that creativity fails though. An early twentieth-century biologist, overwhelmed at the prospect of naming a whole slew of new moth species at once, decided on: Eucosma bobana, E. cocana, E. dodana, E. fofana, E. hohana, E. kokana, E. lolana and E. momana.

But with thousands of new species discovered a year, perhaps that’s understandable.